Digital nomads don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about their health.
For the most part we’re young and spry. We bounce around from country to country and shake off jet lag like Kanye shakes off haters. If hungover, we can usually buy some ibuprofen and tell our clients that we’re unavailable for the morning.
What we don’t talk about is what our work does to our bodies. No, we are not Chilean coal miners. Let’s not exaggerate things. On the grand scale of things, our health issues are very minor.
But everyone, regardless of what their job is, needs to focus on their health and the physical ailments that their job can leave them with.
As we turn coffee shops into our personal offices, we forget that those tables aren’t set up for comfortable working. They’re for….. coffee.
Tables at varying heights and uncomfortable seats make bad posture a regular part of nomad life.
The long-term effects from “hunched over laptop syndrome” (HOLS – yes, it’s a thing) are not good.
Over the months and years, our bodies gets more and more out of alignment. A bit of tension in the neck and shoulders can turn into a chronic issue.
And chances are, you can’t afford to sit on injured reserve while you heal.
So how can we be nice to our bodies as we lean into a keyboard 5-7 hours every single day? It’s a question worth exploring.
I spoke with a physiotherapist who sees digital nomads on a daily basis. He runs a small practice in Medellin, Colombia and he had some great insight on how we can fix some of the issues.
But first, let’s identify some of these terrible posture habits we’ve picked up as coffee shop gremlins.
The posture that fucks us and what it affects.
Really good posture is tough to maintain.
Writing, checking emails, messaging people on our phones — our lives as digital nomads are centered around our phones and computers.
But our bodies weren’t made to be.
We don’t notice how often we’re craning our necks or slightly tensing our shoulders. For most people it’s not a problem…until it is. Over time these slight alignment issues can start to add up.
When you first get to the coffee shop, you’re usually sitting up pretty straight with your shoulders back. Maybe a bit of peacocking to look good for your fellow caffeine curators.
But throughout your day, you naturally start to droop.
Your shoulders fall forward, your neck starts craning, whether to look at your cell phone or to get closer to your screen.
What this does is… well, it starts messing you up.
When your shoulders are up by your neck because the table is too high (which is almost always the case at coffee shops), there’s constant tension. And constant tension leads to chronic tension.
You like knots? Because that’s how you get knots.
And once it is done with your shoulders it will begin to work it’s way up to your neck.
Your head is most comfortable in an upright position. When you crane it down and forward to look at your screen, those neck muscles are burdened.
Burden them enough, and you’ll have a nice strain to deal with.
Do it long enough without changing routine or getting the muscles relaxed and you get even more – blurred vision, muscle weakness, inflammation of muscles, soreness and frequent headaches.
Chronic tension in your neck and shoulders is a pain in the ass. Once it’s there, it’s there.
Bad Wrist Positioning
This coffee shop table height/bad posture thing also does a number (boy, I tell ya) on your wrists.
Your wrists are supposed to be level with your elbows. 90 degrees.
Most of the time at coffee shops, this is impossible. Those fucking tables. Here’s what it ends up looking like:
Her elbow is so far past 90 degrees it disappears!
That bend is common. And it’s exactly what leads to ugly things like carpal tunnel, tendonitis, and just a bad fucking time with your wrists.
You can’t afford to hurt your money makers. Typing with pain gets old, real quick.
The angle of your wrist (in relation to your elbow) makes a big difference. But most of us don’t think twice about it.
Lower back problems. Enough said.
Ways to fix yourself
Alright. I’ve scared you enough.
Even if you’re not in any sort of pain right now, you might as well take some steps to fix it.
And it’s posture. So the changes are easy. But hard. But actually easy.
To get a professional opinion, I went to the muscle therapist that works on all the digital nomads in Medellin (myself included) — Mikko Sneck.
He gave us some great tips on how to fix your shoulder and wrist problems, and he even did a demonstration with Nathan French on how to strengthen your core:
After you watch this video, keep reading for more details (and a couple more videos) on how to implement his advice.
Oh yeah, we’re makin’ changes today.
Posture Fix #1: Keep your chest forward
You can also think about bringing your shoulders back and down, but it’s easier to just think about pointing forward with your chest.
Doing this brings your head back into neutral and relaxes your shoulders.
It also activates your core to stabilize your spine and keep everything aligned.
It’s simple, but this one trick is enough to get rid of some serious issues. Especially if you start before the pain comes.
Posture Fix #2: Self Massage
The neck/shoulder area can be tough to get at yourself, but you can do release a bit of tensions with your fingers and/or a lacrosse ball.
Find the pain/pressure points and just dig in.
You can just press for 30 seconds to a minute, or you can rub. Do it in the morning and then at night after a long day on the computer.
Here are the trigger points that usually carry the most tension:
Seriously just dig your thumb in there and press. Do it often and you’ll release tension over time.
Posture Fix #3: Get a good chair with armrests
A good desk chair can make a big difference.
If you’re working at an actual desk at a co-working space or whatever setup you’ve found, the armrests will help you keep your elbows and wrist in line.
90 degree bend at the elbow. That’s what it’s all about.
This prevents you from dropping that elbow down super far like we always do at the coffee shops. The main catalyst of wrist issues.
You wanna make sure the arm rests aren’t too high. When they are, you will scrunch up your shoulders. Your shoulders should be relaxed as your arms rest.
If you’ve already got some wrist problems, here’s another quick tip from Mikko on how to work them out:
As mentioned before, you just can’t afford to take time off from your computer is that’s how you make a living.
Typing through the pain creates a long term problem.
Wrist pain sucks. Get rid of it.
Posture Fix #4: Increase your Core Strength
Every single movement starts in your core. If it’s weak, other parts of your posture will start to slouch and become shitty.
Mikko and Nathan demonstrated an easy exercise that you can do in the morning (30 seconds to a minute) that will strengthen your core.
You don’t need any equipment, and from how Nathan is in the video, you will start to feel it working pretty quickly.
Here’s the routine in case you wanna copy/paste it into your notes (or if you’re a bad person and didn’t watch the video):
1) Stand shoulder length apart & slightly bend your knees.
2) Stretch your abs. Tuck your chin. Roll your shoulders back.
3) Keep your weight back and slightly bend forward.
4) Then, bring your arms forward. Keep the glutes and lower back activated.
It’ll work your legs, and it will also stretch out your chest.
Hold for at least 20 seconds, or until you start trembling. That trembling or shaking is a sign that your muscles are being pushed — that’s when the adaptation happens.
Do it first thing in the morning for 30 seconds or a minute.
It’ll help your sitting posture for the day ahead. It’ll turn on your muscles for the rest of the day.
Products we love that’ll help fight HOLS
The good thing about these problems is that they’re not new.
People have done their studies, and created some products that make it easier for us to keep our body shrines aligned.
External Keyboard + Laptop Stand
Poor ergonomics will fuck you up.
Setting up your computer at a height where you don’t have to crane your neck is the best way to start preventing some of that neck tension.
Remember we said upright is the most natural.
But then, that makes your keyboard up super high to a point that you’d have to scrunch your shoulders. Obviously we don’t want any of that, so the solution is an external keyboard.
It can seem like a lot to lug around, and it might not be feasible in a lot of coffee shops. But if you have a co-working space or a desk in your apartment, having an external keyboard and a laptop stand is the tits.
Here are a couple that are KnowmadLabs approved.
Trigger Point Tool
If you want to start digging into that shoulder tension, we recommend the S tool.
It looks kinky, but it was made specifically to help people get out back, neck, and shoulder tension. You just dig it in there and hold. It is light and easy to slide in a backpack.
At the end of the day, prevention is much easier than a fix.
Be aware of your posture and focus on your health.